by Mary Brunini McArdle
Ellis Mackey sipped his coffee in a haze of self-contentment. The Darnell Processing Plant, of which he was manager and major shareholder, was doing a booming business.
He looked with pride at the parking lot full of assorted vehicles, some coming in, some going out. The compound was self-sufficient, taking up only a few square miles. Not that the hilly area nearby was even accessible, except to Seth.
“Ellis, I’m going for lunch. Don’t forget that new zoologist is arriving tonight.” Ellis’ secretary broke into his rumination.
“Bring me back a candy bar, hon,” he said.
“Sure. I won’t be long.”
Ellis rose to descend to the basement for his afternoon check. Just as he put down his cup the telephone rang.
“Shit,” he muttered, then backtracked and picked up the receiver.
“Mackey. Yeah? Delayed an hour? Right.”
Ellis sighed and took a coded card out of his vest pocket. The damn zoologist would land after dark now, interfering with Ellis’ relaxation time.
He walked down a corridor and unlocked a metal door leading to a flight of stairs. Mellowing out as he descended, he told himself he didn’t have it so bad. Sure, this place was the pits, but at least he had the best living quarters and a pliable secretary.
Permanent lights kept the recesses of the stairwell in shadow. When Ellis reached his destination he entered a huge chamber. There was another chamber within, this one with a wall of bars across the front. Grounding rods and padlocks graced the center. In the outer room two guards were seated at computer terminals. Ellis inspected everything that could possibly be insecure. It took about thirty minutes. Looking forward to his candy bar, he gave the guards a thumbs up and returned to his office.
* * *
The planet was breathtaking. Flori leaned out the window of the shuttle. A double moon illuminated the shadowed landscape, broken by numerous low hills. And such a moon! The second orb showed from behind the first, the two rising and setting together like Siamese twins.
She was met by the plant manager, a bulky man to whom she took an instantaneous dislike.
She had to force herself to extend her hand. “I’m Flori Gunther.”
“Ellis Mackey. I’ll be showing you to your quarters.”
“Mr. Mackey, could I see the lab first?” He frowned. Interrupting his free time, she thought. She knew she could tap in and verify her suspicions, but she didn’t want to bother.
“’Flori’? Is that short for ‘Florence’?”
“No. My mother named me ‘Florida.’ To make a statement. She doesn’t like people forgetting the names of the old states.”
“Mr. Mackey, when will I meet the caretaker?”
“Ellis, hon, Ellis. Seth won’t be back with Blaze until after breakfast.”
“That’s what we call him... it.”
Flori took in the lab without comment until Ellis brought her close to the inner chamber. She knelt and touched the floor inside the bars with her forefinger. “There’s a paring here,” she commented. “Of a claw, I think.”
“That’s what we get. Parings.”
“And the DNA testing’s been done from just — parings?”
“Only thing possible. You’ll see.”
“They’re not generous with information when they give us an assignment,” the girl said. “They just tell us where we’re going and ship us out.”
* * *
Flori insisted to a reluctant Ellis Mackey that she wait in the lab for Seth’s return the next morning. The planet was as lovely as it had been the night before. The white buildings of the compound glowed softly against the encircling hills, the double moon topping them and vying with the first rays of the sun.
Ellis was waiting for her; she could sense his impatience. They descended the staircases, Ellis puffing from the exertion.
After speaking to the guards, Ellis unlocked the barred inner chamber and pushed an automatic button. The doors swung back, leaving an entrance of about twenty feet.
“We need to stand clear,” Ellis said. “Over there, in that observation area.”
Flori followed him to a raised platform with a railing. A sound came from somewhere, like heavy breathing and a thudding.
A hitherto unseen gate across from the platform opened with a groan. A young, sweet-faced man stepped through. He was holding a chain. “Stay back,” he ordered.
Behind him color flickered around an enormous dark shape. Flori gasped when she saw the young man’s companion.
Heavy legs with clawed feet supported a lizard-like body, covered with dark gray scales. The head was massive, the jaws huge and pendulous. Blue light crackled around the head and in the eyes, which seemed to intermittently focus on every human being in the room. Then “Blaze” bared a double row of teeth and hissed. The sound was that of a thousand snakes.
But the creature docilely obeyed as the young man led it to the inner chamber and closed it within.
Now I understand, Flori thought. If it will only let this Seth handle it, there’s no way we can study its anatomy.
* * *
Flori retired to her quarters after helping herself to the buffet breakfast in the main building. A shame the budget allowed for only one zoologist. Once there had been a team. But the creature would only tolerate Seth — probably because he was a telepath. He doesn’t know I’m a telepath too, she thought. A level four telepath — I can block him out.
DNA research hadn’t been definitive; even Blaze’s sex was unknown. “It’s ambulatory — organized on an organ-system level. You can tell that by looking at it,” she murmured. “With similarities to several old Earth phyla. Damn. Everything comes down to money. They’d rather spend it on the plant than on this fascinating specimen.”
* * *
“The new zoologist wants to talk to you,” Ellis said to Seth late that afternoon.
“Not much to talk about.”
“For a little while. Blaze is getting restless.”
When Flori arrived, Ellis introduced her to Seth, but didn’t leave the office.
Flori ignored the manager. “I understand Blaze was discovered when the plant was under construction. And that it killed several men before it was confined. Any idea why Blaze is so vicious toward human beings with the exception of yourself?”
“I communicate with him.”
“Didn’t the others try?”
“Yes, but Blaze only communicates by telepathy. Hand gestures and such are beneath him.”
“Then you consider him intelligent?”
“Well — ” Seth hesitated. He shifted uneasily.
Noncommittal, Flori thought. Holding back.
“Would it be possible for me to go with you tonight or tomorrow?”
“Don’t even think about it,” Ellis broke in. “It’s too dangerous. We don’t know how many more of its species are out there, and some of the smaller animals — rodent-like things — have inflicted some nasty bites. You’re to stay on the plant grounds at all times, Ms. Gunther.”
Flori pushed back a lock of hair. “Seth, nobody’s gotten a count on the species? Not even a guess?”
“Guessin’s about all.”
“I suppose I can observe Blaze in the lab.” And try to read him myself, she added silently.
“As long as you don’t get near the cage. He don’t like that. One swipe of a claw and you’re in pieces.”
* * *
The guards were given orders to allow Flori unlimited access. She asked for a desk and chair to be kept in one of the observation decks.
For several mornings she watched Blaze. Once or twice she caught a flicker of something — curiosity? Interest? Perhaps disapproval — in those brilliant eyes.
Talk to me, she said silently.
The eyes flashed at her, then Blaze turned his head away.
I didn’t get anything, Flori thought. I need eye contact and it doesn’t want me to have it. She longed to approach the cage, to reach out a hand to touch, but she believed the reports of the previous casualties.
Trying to talk to Seth was useless. How could someone look so innocent and be so balky? And damn if Seth isn’t blocking me out. He shouldn’t be able to do that, unless he’s drawing extra energy from somewhere — from Blaze. Blaze is helping him!
Flori became increasingly determined to observe both Seth and Blaze away from the plant. Blaze refuses to eat or eliminate in his cage, she mused. It’s almost like Seth’s having to walk a dog. I wonder what goes on out there for so many hours?
There were several all-terrain vehicles parked close to the main building. No one seemed to be watching them. If I wait until everybody’s in bed — are the keys in ‘em? I can find that out easily enough — I can read one of the guards. A low-flying shuttle would be safer, but I don’t want to take the time to learn to work the controls.
She had little to do with Ellis once she settled into a routine. She would run into him at meals; Ellis showed a definite lack of interest in her, which was for the best. One morning he made a snide remark about the plant being better off without Blaze. She felt an angry flush creeping up the back of her neck. The truth was her sympathies lay, not with Ellis Mackey and his plant, but with the magnificent animal in Seth’s care.
Ellis Mackey retired to his quarters to wait for his secretary. He was uneasy. He got that way occasionally once the work day was over and he had a blank pocket of time.
This plant is my life’s work, he thought. The guards do a good job, but all we have for defense is the sixteen-foot fence, useless without electrification. And we can’t keep it on all the time; we don’t have the funding. If anything threatens the perimeter, we’ll have to rely on a half-dozen guards to activate that fence. ‘Course we have a battery of weapons. But they wouldn’t be worth shit against something — big.
* * *
The planet’s climate was mild. There was no need for heavy jackets or even sweaters. Flori chose a date and waited until one in the morning. She dressed carefully — khaki slacks, the sturdiest boots she could find, a long-sleeved denim shirt buttoned to the neck. Setting a small stun gun on “kill,” she tucked it in a pocket and cautiously opened her door.
She picked her way to the main building, deep in shadow, the double moon high overhead.
Laughing softly when she confirmed all the vehicles had keys in the ignitions, she decided on one and climbed inside. “Flori, you just committed a felony,” she whispered. “You stole a vehicle.”
She knew about the fence — no problem there. Being a level four telepath could be convenient sometimes. She hopped out to open the gate, leaving her engine running.
She drove through, headlights off, and holding her breath, exited again to close the gate. Then she headed out, still benefiting from the lights of the compound. Gradually darkness settled in around her, but she kept the headlights off, slowly approaching the hills. The wheels of her vehicle caught and spun several times. The vegetation was damp and slippery. After an hour or so she was in the hills. She was forced to put the vehicle into a lower gear to combat the mossy plants beneath. Then she noticed something new.
A blue haze carpeted the sky in the distance, rimming the tops of the hills with color. The double moon was a quarter down, reflecting a pale blue light.
Must be luminescent animals or plants, Flori thought. Probably plants.
Two hours had passed. Flori decided to park the vehicle and proceed on foot, stun gun in her hand.
Heedless of possible danger, Flori crept forward. She drew in her breath when she reached the top of a rise and peered over it.
Shapes were darting about — shapes that looked like Blaze, only smaller. There were hundreds of them, creatures identical to Blaze, but in assorted sizes. They cavorted in the mossy weeds, rolling, hopping, skipping. Blue fire crackled everywhere. Blaze and Seth sat off to the side, watching.
How? Flori thought. How could there be so many of them? And those eyes! It’s like looking into a jewelry store window full of dancing sapphires!
Eyes? Eyes suddenly appeared close to the ground. Rodent-like teeth grazed the toe of her boot.
Flori whirled. Two more pairs of yellow eyes behind her! She fired the stun gun, its flash creating an arc of light. Something nipped at her heel and she fired again. The eyes retreated; Flori scrambled toward her vehicle, slipping and falling on the slimy grass and leaves. Unfortunately the two arcs of light had alerted Seth. Before Flori could get to her feet both he and Blaze were coming toward her.
She looked helplessly at them.
“What’re you doing here?” Seth demanded.
“I — I wanted to — “ She shrugged. “I wanted to help him.”
Blaze looked directly at her. She felt fire in her mind as well as understanding.
I am not “He,” the creature said silently. And I am not “She.” I am the only “One” and these are my children.
“You’re — you’re monoecious!” Flori exclaimed. “You can reproduce without a mate! Is that what you’ve been doing all this time?”
“I see,” Flori said. “You couldn’t have done anything without Seth. The others would never have allowed it.”
“This is Blaze’s world,” Seth said angrily. “They tore up his home when they built that damn plant.”
“Then let’s take it back,” Flori said.
You would do that? her mind roared. You would do that for one not of your own species?
“The fence is not activated. All you have to do is trample it down. But you must move quickly, before sunrise.”
“I didn’t know,” Seth said sadly. “I didn’t know enough about security to help.”
“It’s not your fault — you’re not a level four. You can’t read as well because Blaze is always nearby. You’ve been saturated with his thoughts. We won’t kill anyone. We’ll offer safe passage to those willing to leave.”
“How’re we gonna pull this off?” Seth asked. “Keep them from activating that fence?”
“Like this,” Flori said. She directed her mind to Blaze and Seth and let them see.
Now there’s no going back, she thought. Like it or not, I’m a criminal.
* * *
Ellis Mackey woke to find an arm around his throat and a stun gun pointed at his head. Next to him in the bed, his secretary lay on her back, snoring.
“What’d she have to drink last night, Mr. Mackey? She’s totally out of it.”
“Ms. Gunther? What — in the hell?“
“Be quiet and I’ll tell you. Here’s what’s you’re going to do.”
Flori prodded him under his chin with the gun and he nodded, beads of perspiration running down his face.
* * *
At dawn the sun rose in conjunction with the setting moons into a sky that was bluer than morning. There was a thunderous noise like the stomping of thousands of feet and the hissing of a million snakes. A horde of shapes ringed by a crackling halo of blue fire approached the fence and Ellis Mackey’s precious plant.
Copyright © 2005 by Mary Brunini McArdle